Overview: After a girls’ seminary school in rural Mississippi, allegiances are tested and a seemingly idyllic community devolves into jealousy and violence. Universal Pictures; 1971; 105 minutes.
Take a lesson by me: Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies exists as a microcosm of the rural Mississippi society in which they live with one major difference: there are no men. The eponymous Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) is strict and harsh with the children, patronizing with the teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and Hallie (Mae Mercer) their slave, lives as a second-class citizen on the grounds. Despite some petty arguments, those at the school initially seem secure in the balance that they have struck, a tiny society that maintains religious and social tradition.
When Union Corporal John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) arrives, he disrupts the balance of this community. He appears like a femme fatale, catching the women off guard and using his cunning, his looks and sexuality to manipulate them in order to escape. He exaggerates his weakness and lies about his past and religion as he aims to charm each of the women by exploiting their interests and weaknesses. Despite branding him as the enemy – a “blue belly” and a “Yank” – and initially planning on turning him over to the Confederate authorities, they are all taken in by young Clint Eastwood’s thick hair and impeccable manners. It happens quickly, but as we watch him deftly charm each woman in a different way, his effect on them is believable.
The Beguiled toes the line between pulpy romance and a terrifying story of desperation and violence. It is the background of the Civil war that creates the added tension and stakes of this story, and further pushes the sense of McBurney, “McBee” as a true outsider. A story of jealousy, sexuality, and manipulation is made tenser by the presence of a war, its violence influencing the actions of the characters, strengthening and weakening allegiances in turn.
Don’t you go for a soldier: The theme of male sexuality as predatory, particularly during war time, is a prevalent one. Early on, Confederate soldiers warn Martha of roaming Union soldiers, desperate for sexual contact that would pose danger to her students. Later Confederate soldiers that arrive during the night and seek to stay at the school are shown to be predatory toward Martha and her students. But McBurney’s brand of predatory behavior is the most disturbing, because it is slow-moving, unassuming, and initially physically nonthreatening.
In the first portion of the film McBee makes up for his lack of physical freedom and strength with emotional manipulation. He has only his wit and charm in conversation, one of the strongest elements of the film. These scenes, in which he woos each of the women, are fascinating not only because of what they reveal about McBee but because of the way they reveal the insecurities and preoccupations of each of the young women.
The way McBurney uses his Union allegiance to try to manipulate Hallie, for example, is fantastic, and many of their interactions are both entertaining and tense. Hallie is initially unconvinced by his assertion that they are both captives in this home, saying: “White man’s the same, anywhere you go.” (McBee’s defensive response is hilarious in its relevancy: “You should say that men are the same way anywhere, no matter what color.”)
Hallie’s sentiment seems largely to be the theme of the film: that men, at least men during war time, become desperate, animalistic, and draw those around them to behave similarly. The women become selfish, deceitful, and ultimately murderous, making rash and selfish choices without concern for the women around them. The weaknesses in the façade of the women’s steadfast support of proper feminine behavior, Christianity, and the Confederacy are quickly laid bare by McBurney’s manipulation.
Don’t join no army: This film is ambitious in the themes it addresses; gender, religion, family, class, and race are all touched upon, and the result is largely effective. The imbalances in society are brought to the fore, in which repressed sexuality, shame, and sexual abuse underlie seemingly stable social structures.
Narrative simplicity allows for most of the women to be well-explored, albeit aided by somewhat dated voiceovers. Despite the film’s focus on the grounds of Miss Martha’s school, the Civil War and its impact on society feels impressively present.
Also of note is the depiction of injuries and gore; there are some startling depictions of war injuries, as well as horrific frankness in the depiction of McBee’s amputation. There is exposed bone and a fair amount of blood as Martha slices through McBee’s broken leg, and the scene is nauseating but effective.
After all we’ve seen of McBee, after all his manipulations and aggression and deceit, there is still an element of tragedy and in his end. This is largely due to a perfectly utilized setting of Mississippi during the Civil War without getting bogged down by historical minutiae. Without too much specificity of location or date, the film gives just enough sense of the time to establish the emotional and psychological state of a community in the midst of conflict. McBurney’s actions are given the context of wartime desperation and thus he, like the women, are held to complicated standards of morality.
Overall: The Beguiled is brutal and focused, and despite the occasional dated elements such as its score and voiceover, it has aged remarkably well considering its subject matter. Clint Eastwood’s McBurney, the disruptor at the core of the story, is a fascinating sort of masculine femme fatale, well-acted in both his reprehensible moments and his charming ones, but not without dimension. The Beguiled shows remarkable range of genre yet still feels cohesive, and takes the time and has the writing strength necessary to make its ending feel both gratifying and upsetting.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures